The first day of the much anticipated and coveted World Test Championship (WTC) final between India and New Zealand at Southampton was washed out by rain and a wet outfield in what was an anticlimactic start to the mega event on Friday. With more rain, overcast and cold conditions predicted for the next five days, it would seem that the conditions prevailing in the southern port city of England are overwhelmingly in favour of New Zealand. But it might actually turn out to be the other way round. A rain reduced match in terms of time played and overs may actually benefit India and the more attacking instinct of their batting line-up. It may also allow skipper Virat Kohli to use his three pacers more aggressively.
There is no doubt, of course, that the current weather conditions prevailing in Southampton favour swing and seam bowling and New Zealand have the two best proponents of it in the world in Tim Southee and Trent Boult - one who will take the ball away from the right-hander and the other who will get it to jag back.
How Can A Shortened Match Help India’s Pace Trio?
India does not have conventional swing bowlers in their XI as all three of their pacers are ‘hit the deck on a good length’ bowlers. However, this does not mean that they cannot out-perform their New Zealand counterparts in Southampton. In a rain-shortened match, Kohli can use his three quicks judiciously for short attacking bursts with R Ashwin or Ravindra Jadeja bowling from the other end. Yes, a bowler’s rhythm can get affected by the persistent rain intervals but these are professionals and world class bowlers who can use this to their advantage too as they will be fresh and raring to go whenever they come onto bowl.
Ishant Sharma has a fine record in England and had won India the match at Lord’s in 2014. Mohammed Shami has one of the best seam positions in the world and has been India’s highest impact bowler in the WTC. Average and Strike Rate do not do justice to how well he bowled in England in 2018 especially at The Oval and a fuller length this time around and he can run through the New Zealand XI in helpful conditions. Jasprit Bumrah returned with 7 wickets in the win at Trent Bridge in 2018. A shortened match will allow Kohli to get the best out of his three pacers as it would also force the New Zealand batting line-up to approach the innings differently - usually their three best batsmen - Tom Latham, Kane Williamson and Henry Nicholls like to take their time, play out overs and time and tire the opposition bowlers and are essentially accumulators of runs. But labelled as favourites they would be keen to force a result and may just take more risks in their pursuit to score runs in an overall truncated match in terms of time and overs. This might just play into the hands of the Indians.
The forecast in Southampton, even with the reserve day, suggests that not more than three full days of play would be possible. If that were the case it would also have an impact on how the attacking Indian batting line-up could possibly approach the innings with a change in plan and strategy.
A Shortened Match May See Aggressive Approach By Indian Batsmen
Rohit Sharma has a strike rate of 58.39 in Test cricket. His scoring rate as an opener is an impressive 64.49 to go with the average of 64.37. Two of his hundreds from the position came at a rate of above 80 and one in the 70s. Even his magnificent series-changing 161 against England in Chennai, on a treacherous wicket where most others failed came at a rate of almost 70.
Rohit has the ability to score big runs at a high rate thereby setting the platform and the tempo for the rest of the match. In a shortened match, he can play with a little more freedom and take calculated risks. It does not mean he should not respect the conditions and play recklessly - just play with a positive intent and that is enough for a batsman of his class to score freely. If there was no intervention by rain then Rohit would need to be a little more circumspect as there are so many more overs he would need to play but the dynamics change dramatically now - even a quick 50-60 by Rohit can set the tempo in a low-scoring match.
India can get on to a rollicking start with the Rohit Sharma-Shubman Gill pair getting a few boundaries at the top of the order. They don’t have to leave everything outside the off-stump and can mix caution with controlled aggression - something which Virender Sehwag did successfully, more in India but even overseas - the best examples of which are from two ODI matches in Napier and Auckland in 2002-03. Most of the Indian batting order collapsed in swinging and seaming conditions but Sehwag blasted two hundreds and was in a league of his own winning India one of the matches.
This will also allow Cheteshwar Pujara to play like Cheteshwar Pujara - like the way he did in Australia holding up one end and letting the more aggressive batsmen to score freely from the other. This strategy has already worked wonders with the Pujara-Rishabh Pant pair both at the SCG and Brisbane and there is no reason why it will not work in England.
Kohli has a strike rate of 57.12 and two of his three best knocks in England (149 in Birmingham and 97 at Nottingham) came at a scoring rate of above 60. A shortened match allows Kohli to think with more clarity and come back to form in the format with a match-defining 70-80 scored at a brisk pace. A full match would have forced him to plan, play extra cautiously at the start and slowly build his innings. With a lot of time set to be taken away from the match he can play his natural game and score more freely.
The biggest game-changer (apart from Rohit) in a three-day match (effectively) can be the destructive number six Pant. He has already shown what he can do with the bat in England - at The Oval in 2018. In a low-scoring match, which in all likelihood will be the case at Southampton, even a Pant 40 off 30 deliveries can be a game-changer which may not have been the case in a full five-day encounter.
Basically, if India play this well, the attacking flair and scoring ability of their batsmen may give them an advantage over their New Zealand counterparts in a truncated match. In helpful bowling conditions and in a reduced contest it is better to score 200 in 50 overs and be bowled out rather than drag yourself and play 70 and score 140. Sooner or later an unplayable delivery will get the better of the best of the batsmen in such conditions and thus it is paramount to maximize your chances of scoring runs while you are out there in the middle.
India, unlike the opposition, has the prowess to do so and the Rain Gods might just be doing them a big favour.